First, a confession: I have never read the X-Men comics. I have never seen the X-Men movies. I am an X-Men virgin. So the fact that I liked X-Men: First Class, the fifth installment in the 20th Century Fox/Marvel big screen franchise, can be seen as either my fabulous, intuitive taste or hopeless naivete, depending on your position. Naturally, I prefer the former.
I realize that die-hard fans—especially comic book nerds—can get crazy about the integrity of the film adaptation, from overall plot points to minute details such as the precise color of a character’s hair or breastplate insignia, and admittedly I can’t comment on that. Hell, I don’t even know if X-Men: First Class has real fanboy roots or if it’s just a creative spin-off, a Muppet Babies for the ComiCon set. But it’s big, it’s flashy and it’s fun to watch—what more could you ask of a summer blockbuster, really?
X-Men: First Class opens with a scene set at a concentration camp in Poland during the Holocaust, during which Kevin Bacon, as a Nazi doctor, tries to provoke the telekenetic powers of Erik, a young Jewish boy, by demanding that he move a coin across a table with his mind, or watch his mother shot to death (it doesn’t end well). Filled with rage and pain, Erik destroys the torture chamber, much to Herr Doktor’s delight. Meanwhile, in England, a Little Lord Fauntleroy type hears a noise in the kitchen and discovers a shape-shifting blue girl (think the love child of a Na’avi and Papa Smurf) trying to steal food. He communicates with her telepathically, and a mutant friendship is formed.
Fast-forward to the swinging ’60s. Erik has grown into the strapping Michael Fassbender, his powers honed to those of a deadly assassin, who’s obsessed with avenging his mother’s death. The young Brit and his blue cohort have become James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively. McAvoy is professor Charles Xavier, an expert on genetic mutations, and Lawrence is Raven, his constant companion and “sister.” Xavier seems to spend most of his time using his telepathy to hit on women, until a comely FBI agent (Rose Byrne) recruits him to help stop an evil mastermind and his mutant posse from plotting a nuclear armageddon.
The mastermind in question is none other than Bacon, now going by the name Sebastian Shaw. He’s lost the German accent and graying temples, but we soon learn that Shaw’s mutant power is the ability to absorb energy, which keeps him eternally young. His sidekicks include Emma Frost (January Jones, maddeningly affectless as always) and two comically—no pun intended—costumed goons, the cartoonish devil Azazel and the lush-locked Riptide, who hurls tiny tornadoes at adversaries.
Not to be outdone, Xavier and Erik—who meet cute during an FBI stakeout of Shaw’s compound—assemble a team of young mutants to train, Mighty Ducks style (they even choose the superhero names they will later be known by in the Marvel comics, such as Mystique, Magneto and Professor X). What follows is a high-stakes face-off between the forces of good and evil, both sides eager to show off their genetic bag of party tricks, that ultimately ends in the formation of the two mutant factions that will serve as the basis for the X-Men comics.
Despite its occasionally silly plot (did you know that mutants exacerbated the Cuban Missile Crisis?) and the odd CGI misstep (Nicholas Hoult’s Beast looks like a Care Bear on steroids), X-Men: First Class is a harmless romp, with welcome bits of wit. (“Don’t touch my hair,” Xavier warns another character—which is funny because fans know that in the future, Professor X will be played by cue ball Patrick Stewart. Franchise regulars Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn also make tongue-in-cheek cameos). It’s fine, fluffy popcorn fare that, despite Jones’ best efforts, isn’t boring or wooden. Plus, you get Bacon with a shag haircut and a mean streak. Mutation has never looked so good.
X-Men: First Class (PG-13) ★★★☆☆